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The Bug: A Novel
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The Bug: A Novel

3.51 of 5 stars 3.51  ·  rating details  ·  338 ratings  ·  66 reviews
With a New Introduction by Mary Gaitskill

A PEN/Hemingway Award Finalist

A New York Times Book Review Notable Book

Ellen Ullman is a "rarity, a computer programmer with a poet’s feeling for language" (Laura Miller, Salon). The Bug breaks new ground in literary fiction, offering us a deep look into the internal lives of people in the technical world. Set in a start-up company
ebook, 384 pages
Published February 28th 2012 by Picador (first published 2003)
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Stephen Gallup
I found this quirky novel on a table in the break room where I work, and once I opened it I couldn't put it down.

How could anybody not recognize and identify with this opening scenario/rant:

"And so we waited. Tick-tock, blink-blink, thirty seconds stretched themselves out one by one, a hole in human experience. Waiting for the system: life today is full of such pauses. The soft clacking of computer keys, then the voice on the telephone telling you, 'Just a moment, please.' The credit-card reader
Lisa Eckstein
This novel is about the quest to track down and fix a software bug, and I've never read another piece of fiction that makes authentic programming details such an integral part of the plot. If you're tickled by the idea of "kill -9" as a plot point, you'll like this book. But if you don't know what this means, don't worry, because all is entertainingly explained within the text, and the story is about so much more than a bug.

The setting is the mid-1980s, during the early days of graphical user in
It's an engrossing depiction of the early days of computer technology and computer start-ups -- similar to Plowing the Dark in the accuracy with which is captures the thought processes, foibles, and lifestyles of those we call geeks. The Bug focuses on two employees of a database start-up: Ethan Levin, a prickly programmer with a neurotic sense of inadequacy and a spiralling personal life, and Roberta Walton, a refugee from academia who first scorns and then embraces the arcana of the computer. ...more
As a programmer I enjoyed reading about the weird little phenomena that I thought were experienced by just me, but that are actually common. Like the weird frequency with which I think of the answers to programming problems in the shower - I really thought that was just me! Also, how there are more left-handers among programmers than in the general population (I am one). It was also interesting reading about the debugging process articulated into words so well. Not sure how interesting this book ...more
Sep 01, 2008 Graham rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: programmers
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Alan Newman
This is a remarkable novel: a psychological thriller; a cautionary tale about empathy, obsession and self indulgence; a scathing critique of bureaucracy and venture capitalism in the computer industry; a philosophic treatise on the differences of Man and Machine; a literary allusion to Mary Shelly's Frankenstein in which the central character is both creator and monster. I know nothing about computer programming and learned much from reading this: I will never again move the mouse without thinki ...more
The Bug is a novel that my father gave me for Christmas last year; I put off reading it until the summer because I wasn't sure I could read it in good humor while still taking a programming class.

The two novels it most reminds me of couldn't be more different. It's like Microserfs in the way it chronicles the social fabric of a technology project--the collaborations, rivalries, and moments of shared insight. But it's much more literary than Coupland; it also reminds me of Netherland in the way i
I was surprised (and pleased) at the extent to which Ullman presages Jaron Lanier. I cannot now recall if he mentions her in his writing, since I wasn't familiar with Ellen Ullman when I read You Are Not a Gadget nor the New Yorker article. Just going to quote two nice passages near the end so that I can come back and read them later:
... there is the problem of crossing the chasm between human and machine "thought": some fundamental difference in the way humans and computers are designed to oper
Marie desJardins
A book about computer programming and debugging -- what could be cooler?

Unfortunately, for me, it just didn't hang together that well.

The characters are so stereotyped, I got tired of the "you can only program if you're obsessive-compulsive and antisocial" theme. Even Berta, who starts off kind of normal, turns more and more antisocial when she starts learning how to program.

The biggest problem, for me, is that the bug that eludes them throughout the book just shouldn't have been that hard to fi
"Hey John," I said to my coworker, "you should totally check out The Bug!"

"Well, what's it about?" asked John, who is also a software developer.

"It's about some people who may have gone insane while trying to fix a devious computer bug!"

"....get it away from me!!"

After finishing this book, I can understand my coworker's hesitance to face such a thought. Ullman has penned every software developer's worst nightmare into existence: she has created an unbeatable software bug that, when coupled with
M. L. Wilson
The Bug is the debut novel of writer and computer programmer, Ellen Ullman. The novel is a semi-autobiographical story which is based upon her years working as a programmer in for a company in California’s “Silicon Valley” in the 1980s. Ullman fleshes herself out in the novel through the character of Roberta Walton, a quality tester at a small software firm. It is through her discovery of the presence of a software syntax error—a bug—that breathes life into the novel.

Ullman does a fine job of se
Adrian McCarthy
I stumbled upon a description of this book earlier in the year and added it to my reading list. Just a few weeks later, a friend who had read my book, _Blue Screen of Death_, said he enjoyed BSoD much more than _The Bug_, so naturally I moved it up to the top of my reading list.

Comparing them isn't fair. _Blue Screen of Death_ is a genre mystery. _The Bug_ is a mainstream literary work, mostly a character study. Nevertheless, there were some striking similarities: both are narrated from the poin
Martin McClellan
Ullman is an American treasure. So rarely do voices so unique and interesting emerge, and in her case only after a career in a field unrelated to writing, but related to this book: computer programming. This is not a page turner, although I certainly kept my interest. It is not a thriller, or a paint-by-numbers escalation into an expected exegesis.

This is a novel exploring the obsession and devotion it takes to hold a portion of a complex programming problem in your mind, and execute it. In thi
I heard about Ullman after a WSJ review of her new book, which mentioned The Bug in conjunction to the algorithmic trading mishaps recently. From the blurb I was expecting a sci-fi novel about a seemingly innocent programming bug that propagates with unintended consequence, threatening society. The book is much different, being both more personal and profound.

The novel centers on two employees of a Silicon Valley tech start-up - a programmer (Ethan) and a quality engineer (Berta). The mechanism
The Bug is probably my favorite of the books I've read in 2012. Ostensibly about the frustrations and minutiae of programming, the book is an excellent work of literary fiction that delves into some philosophical thoughts on the nature of humanity itself. It tells the story of a young programmer whose quest to fix an obscure but critical bug consumes his personal life, which crashes down around him just as the bug crashes the computers it runs on. Although a bit tedious in some parts, the novel ...more
This novel mostly takes place in 1985, which is around the beginning of my career as a software engineer. The book is not about programming, but it attempts to tell a significant story about a programmer in the context of his personality disorders amid the hunt for a particularly troublesome bug.

Although the writing was good -- there are many well-drawn characters and a few compelling scenes -- I found that the story just didn't sound 'true' to me. Even though my profession has led me to meet ma
As developers at some point in our profesional lives we are haunted by "the bug", not just A bug, but THE bug. It's that bug that makes no sense, that after hours of debugging you can never figure out but of course will always crash your application in front of a customer. This book is about a programmer and this type of bug.

I really liked the story. I think this book does a great job portraying how a programmer feels when trying to find THE bug. Based in the mid 80s, the book can get very gee
It's interesting to read a book that relates to my life and can teach a few lessons:

1) Always test with some method of capturing a trace, such as a core dump or a sniffer.
2) Don't be afraid to learn how to deal with code.
3) Pay attention to the people around you.
This book is a novel about two people who work at a software startup in the mid 80's. I almost didn't finish it, but I wanted to find out what happened. I give the author credit for that. But it was pretty repetitive, including many scenes of one character freaking out, behaving obsessively, and writing code to distract himself from his life. And it had too much technical stuff, a lot of it explaining software concepts. And the book includes actual C code. I don't know what this book would be li ...more
April Sarah
It was a used book that some how grabed my attention and demanded to be bought. It isn't my usual read but I found that I did enjoy it.

The writing style isn't that inviting, in fact it seems kind of impersonal at times, just like the coding it is telling about. That fact is both a plus and a minus in its favor.

The book left a deep inpact on me after the end. It seemed like a story that could easly happen to anyone in the field of programming and it almost reads as if it could be a real life eve
James (Xiong Chiamiov) Pearson
As a programmer, I felt the emotion here - I know what it's like to be bothered day and night by a bug I just can't track down. But I also know there's a fairly simple solution that works most of the time: get a fresh set of eyes on the problem.

Often you don't even need to have another human involved (see rubber duck debugging). But when months and months pass, (view spoiler) - why on ear
very good. No question Ullman is a compelling writer, but I did feel like this one took a little bit out of me when I was done. Quite heavy.
Erika Lee
I thought The Bug was tedious, with obvious metaphors ("the computer=life, man!). It felt a bit like watching the 90s internet cinema thriller "The Net" with Sandra Bullock.

Positive points: I did find it interesting to get inside the head of the character you don't often encounter or think much about, the antisocial programmer. I also found it a bit jarring to think about how easily your life can unravel, and how closely your happiness is tied to your employment and what you do every day.

This is the book about the tech world I thought I wanted to write. Upon reading this one, I realized that even reading about what I do for a living (software testing) can be exhausting. The author went all out to give the reader the experience of being in the tech world during the boom. To an extent she succeeded, but it wore me out despite being well written. If you work in tech and reading is your escape, don't read this book. If you don't work in tech and you are curious about the milieu of t ...more
Mar 28, 2009 Leah rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Debbie, Meg, Henry, maybe Divya
Shelves: library-book, fiction
I saw it on the library shelf and picked it up, as I do with so many of my reading choices these days (libraries are amazing and allow for that casual browsing). I fell in love with the world of consuming software development. Coding and debugging and the satisfaction of producing working end results, exquisitely captured by the author.
As for the rest of the plot, I could take it or leave it. I got upset near the end, because although a disaster is foreshadowed from the very beginning, I had not
From the days that "Wang" still existed. Can't someone reinstate the brand!
Funny in this book is the language that describes the bug as an existing entity, rather than a piece of software. When I need the PC the most, I always remind myself of this way of viewing the "machine". Whatever the machine's use, or brand, sort, or function. It is alive when connected to the socket, or other energy source. Whilst alive you better show your respect!
Jeff Druzba
The author is good at providing a literary take on thoroughly non-literary topics like software coding and QA but I felt the strength of her prose couldn't salvage a plot that I found fairly plain. When the book ended I didn't feel that I cared much about the characters. I also felt like I knew what was going to happen to the lead, Ethan Levin, very early on and so, I felt like I was waiting for that eventuality to occur throughout.
I liked this. First book that I've read that explores technical / software culture / knowledge in a literary way. It's a geeky book but it's concerned with people instead of 80s Japanese kids TV show knowledge-based oneupmanship. It talks about linguistics and the nature of life and comes up with some striking links with programming languages and the language of programming. Plus, a readable style and compelling plot.
The Bug is a tale about a programmer's search for an elusive bug. It is also a tragedy in which the obsessive search for the bug parallels the breakdown of the programmer's real life relationship. What is so absorbing with the novel is the amount of detail and description of programming a software that's in the book, giving it an authentic and geeky feel. A certified geek novel.
This was disappointing, especially since her other book, "By Blood," was one of my favorites this year. "The Bug" is incredibly slow, and I didn't care about the characters until 9/10ths of the way through. I put this down many times and never wanted to pick it up again. Also, reading about the details of working at a computer screen was not pleasant. I do that enough at my job.
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Ellen Ullman is the author of By Blood, The Bug, a New York Times Notable Book and runner-up for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and the cult classic memoir Close to the Machine, based on her years as a rare female computer programmer in the early years of the personal computer era. She lives in San Francisco.
More about Ellen Ullman...
By Blood Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents The Eloquent Essay: An Anthology of Classic & Creative Nonfiction Story Behind the Book : Volume 2 (Essays on Writing Speculative Fiction)

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“Debugging: what an odd word. As if "bugging" were the job of putting in bugs, and debugging the task of removing them. But no. The job of putting in bugs is called programming. A programmer writes some code and inevitably makes the mistakes that result in the malfunctions called bugs. Then, for some period of time, normally longer than the time it takes to design and write the code in the first place, the programmer tries to remove the mistakes.” 6 likes
“The machine seemed to understand time and space, but it didn’t, not as we do. We are analog, fluid, swimming in a flowing sea of events, where one moment contains the next, is the next, since the notion of “moment” itself is the illusion. The machine—it—is digital, and digital is the decision to forget the idea of the infinitely moving wave, and just take snapshots, convincing yourself that if you take enough pictures, it won’t matter that you’ve left out the flowing, continuous aspect of things. You take the mimic for the thing mimicked and say, Good enough. But now I knew that between one pixel and the next—no matter how densely together you packed them—the world still existed, down to the finest grain of the stuff of the universe. And no matter how frequently that mouse located itself, sample after sample, snapshot after snapshot—here, now here, now here—something was always happening between the here’s. The mouse was still moving—was somewhere, but where? It couldn’t say. Time, invisible, was slipping through its digital now’s.” 3 likes
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